My class at UW is coming to a close all too soon. Next week is the Wes and Anitra show. If these kids think I'm a freak they ain't seen nothin' yet. Today my friend Sarah Dooling came to discuss the research she did for the PhD she's finishing up. In interviews of 80 homeless people, she found that the normative ideas of home and the limited notions of housing and shelter that these offer do not meet the needs of many of the single homeless people that spoke with her. "Home" to many of these people has little to do with four walls and a roof.
While Sarah spoke highly of the 1811 Eastlake project as a program that suspends the moral calculus of deserving and undeserving poor to meet people where they are in a way that is more cost-effective than the alternative, this is one program serving 75 people. We need many more 1811 Eastlakes. It's a beginning. Not an end. Meanwhile, a radical disconnect exists between the cost of housing and the earning power of the poor and working class.
Much of our time has been spent in exploring the contradictions of the Ten Year Plan paradigm for ending homelessness. Sarah went into this some today as well. Why do the Governing Board, the Interagency Council, and the Consumer Advisory Group all meet separately, with the Director acting as the node of communication between these bodies? Why is the inclusion of homeless people in the process so tokenized and embedded in a relationship of powerlessness? What's up with the fetishized goal of 9,500 units of housing, which pretends that the various market relationships that create homelessness will stand frozen in place for a full decade? Why should we believe that Governing Board member and multi-millionaire businessman Blake Nordstrom — who doesn't want a bunch of homeless people in Victor Steinbrueck Park crapping up the view from his luxury penthouse — is motivated by great humanitarian ideals, or that his much acclaimed business acumen contains the solution to homelessness?
And so forth. The gaps in sense and logic are legion.
Our reading for today was the final chapter of Todd Depastino's extraordinary Citizen Hobo, which traces the evolution of homelessness in America from the post-Civil War period forward. While post-World War II education benefits for white returning GIs, readily available FHA loans for white people, and the Fordist pact between government, business, and labor led to steady reductions in inequality and a rising standard of living — primarily for white people — and the virtual elimination of homelessness, the onslaught of the globalized economy drew what was underneath all along out into the open and blew it apart.
Women, kids, and people of color — those who have been most economically vulnerable all along — are the big losers in the new social order. The economic gains of feminism split across class lines, as did the economic progress that followed the civil rights movement. The racialization and the feminization of poverty drove wedges between the poor and their middle class allies just as homelessness was being reinvented in the context of a globalized economy.
While it is commonly understood that woman and children are the largest and fastest growing sector of the homeless, and that people of color — and Blacks in particular — experience homelessness far disproportionately to their percentage of general population, the Ten Year Plan paradigm narrowly draws our attention to the visible poor: the dysfunctional by definition ten to fifteen percent of the homeless who have been defined as "chronic."
While the chronic homelessness obsession is relatively new, the deserving versus undeserving poor debate never left us. For years, advocates focused their attention on homeless families. While this may have been politically expedient, it may have laid the seeds for where we now find ourselves. Depastino writes,
With their ability to arouse pity and inspire protectionist intervention, homeless women, especially those with dependent children [became] the most recognizable emblems of homeless victimization. By contrast, homeless Black and Hispanic men, who tended to remain on the streets far longer than their female counterparts, raised the specter of an undomesticated and "savage" masculinity in need of stern control. This dual face of homelessness — "worthy" mothers on the one hand and "unworthy" men of color on the other — governed the most common responses to the crisis: calls for charity and government shelters and demands for police action against panhandlers and squatters.Over the eighties and into the nineties, he says, liberals and conservatives fought over the definition of homelessness, and for a time, the liberals won. The "broad constructionist" approach of focusing on women and children as economic victims largely beat out the conservative "strict constructionist" strategy of defining homeless people as "men who had exchanged the responsibilities of bread winning for the "savage" dangers and freedoms of the streets."
I would argue that this "victory" was both temporary and illusory.
At the beginning of my class, I offered the Ten Year Plan paradigm contradiction for consideration as a zen koan. Why would the Bush administration — arguably the most hostile administration to the interests of poor people since Hoover — take upon themselves the "challenge" of ending homelessness? Even as they continue to slash the federal housing budget and other supports to poor people. In what universe does this proposition make sense? I proposed to my students that this, an apparently, absurd, unsolvable conundrum, when meditated upon diligently, may offer the beginnings of enlightenment.
Today after class, Sarah and I went to Than Brothers, the site of my horrible accident, for an incident free bowl of pho. I shared the results of my own enlightenment over lunch.
"It's about redefinition," I said. "It's a thin pretense of a solution that leverages the relatively paltry levels of federal funding for homeless services to narrow the advocacy focus to the most stigmatized sector of homeless people. It distracts us from making the connections to globalization by focusing relentlessly on the fucked up and easy to blame poor. Also, cities are being re-invented in the post-Fordist era as islands of affluence, where those who can afford urban living are attracted by the upscale amenities. Visible poverty runs counter to the interests of the huge investment capital that is at stake in this reinvention. There's an alignment of interests there. This is about reducing homelessness in the public imagination to the undeserving poor and uncoupling the issue from poverty and globalization."
Sarah stopped eating her pho. "That's dead on," she said. Damn right it is.